The spotlight was on Roanoke School Board Chairwoman Annette Lewis, but she turned it to back to her six colleagues.
Lewis said the recognition at her final regular school board meeting on Tuesday made her uncomfortable, so she tried to return the favor and proceeded to individually compliment her fellow board members for their service.
When the board and the audience stood in ovation, Lewis said thank you, but immediately waved for all to sit down.
Lewis is leaving the board at the end of the month after completing her final term. Roanoke City Council appoints members to the school board for a maximum of three terms, or nine school years. Lewis’ fellow board members selected her as chairwoman each year since 2016.
Lewis said she’s reflected on some of the tough choices she’s made. Decisions like approving raises “during a time when we were still trying to climb out of the recession” or outsourcing more school services come to mind, Lewis said.
The school system first started outsourcing transportation in 2009. Two years later, the division reached an agreement with Carilion Clinic to provide nursing services. In 2015, the school board decided to outsource food services and substitute teacher hiring.
Lewis said the school board looked out for staff each time an outsourcing decision was made to ensure that employees had a job opportunity with the outside company.
Hiring a company to provide food services proved to be the most difficult choice regarding outsourcing, Lewis said. Many in the community were concerned that the move would cost employees their jobs.
“We took a long time to do our research, to review the information provided to us,” Lewis said. “No one is interested in laying people off. We needed to make sure the staff would be paid, trained and receive benefits so they would not have a tremendous loss.”
Another school board decision that stirred public debate came last summer. The board voted to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School following months of community input and analysis by a committee that considered the impact of removing the Confederate general’s name.
The school is now John P. Fishwick Middle, named for the railroad executive who grew up in Southeast Roanoke and attended the school.
“I’m proud of the way we handled the changing of the name,” said Lewis. “We gave the community every opportunity to weigh in, share their thoughts. We didn’t make that decision in a vacuum.”
During a reception Tuesday at Patrick Henry High School, fellow board members praised Lewis’ leadership and community service.
Board member Bill Hopkins said Lewis kept the board from fragmenting.
“We’ve had some issues that could potentially divide us, and they have not. I contribute that in large part to your leadership,” Hopkins said, crediting Lewis with handling meetings professionally and graciously.
Other school board members echoed the praise for Lewis.
“Your commitment to this city, I think, is unparalled,” said board member Laura Rottenborn. “Your commitment to the children of this city is particularly inspirational. Lots of children who will never actually see you are the beneficiaries of your commitment.”
Board member Lutheria Smith called Lewis a tireless advocate for the Roanoke Valley’s children, and for the unemployed and underserved members of the community. “Whatever the need is, you give your heart and soul to meet it on behalf of all the people you serve,” Smith said.
On July 1, Joyce Watkins will fill Lewis’ seat on the school board. The board has not yet decided who will serve as chair.
Lewis said serving the schools has been a privilege and an honor. She pointed to improvements under Superintendent Rita Bishop’s leadership, such as the school system’s graduation rate, accreditation status and fine arts programs.
She said she hopes the division continues to prioritize initiatives aimed at meeting the needs of more students to ensure they can thrive. Two specific goals Lewis said will help Roanoke “continue to move the needle toward success” are becoming a trauma-informed school division, and becoming culturally competent.
“We want to make sure that as we’re growing, we address implicit biases that exist, or else some of the brightest children we have will not be successful,” Lewis said.
The board should continue to focus on minority hiring and retention, Lewis said.
Lewis will continue to work with the school system and its students through Total Action for Progress. She’ll also look for other ways to help.
“I will be one of the citizens who supports Roanoke City Public Schools in any way I can,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ final official meeting will be a June 25 work session.